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Evil, good closely woven on the border


By Miriam Davidson
University of Arizona Press, 200 pages, $17.95 paperback


During the past 30 years, the Mexico/United States border has become a preview of the nightmare that might well await all of us in a not-too-distant future. The border is overcrowded -- there is not enough water to meet the demands of a population that continues to grow. Industry has rendered the air, ground and water toxic -- with the tragic, awful consequences of anencephalic babies and clusters of cancer. Violence has become a way of life, with a massive presence of the Border Patrol and increased trafficking in narcotics, weapons and immigrants.

Miriam Davidson takes us on a tour of this nightmare. Her venue is the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz. Her subjects are a Mexican woman who works in a border factory, an unlikely environmental champion, children who live under the border (in drainage tunnels), a Border Patrol agent and the man he pursues and shoots, an American woman who manages an American plant in Mexico and her husband who manages a soup kitchen in one of the poor Mexican neighborhoods.

Davidson’s journalistic eye captures the legacy of squalor and misery that greed and irresponsibility have created along the borderlands. There is nothing new in this, but the stories Davidson tells form a textbook on just how closely woven evil and good, banality and heroism can be.

She writes, for instance, of the lifelong struggle of a Mexican peasant woman to own her own home. This woman earns $4 a day twisting wires together in an American-owned factory. “Home” for her is a one-room shack. Her drinking water is stored in a barrel once used for industrial chemicals. Her workplace is a hellhole, with constant exposure of the workers to chemicals, heavy metals and industrial solvents. The woman’s strength gives homage to the human spirit. However, a glance at her photograph midway through the story tells the reader of the price of her heroism.

Davidson’s style carries the reader easily from one story to the next. The great gift of this book, however, lies in its refusal to reduce the struggles of those who live in the two cities known as Ambos Nogales as something peculiar to that place. Toxic dumps may be concentrated along the border, but they do not respect any border. The wastes move downstream and downwind, both into U.S. homes as well as into the consciences of those of us who live far from the border, but enjoy the benefits of “affordable” consumer goods.

Immigration is clearly more visible along the border, but there is scarcely a town in the United States that has not been visited by people who have come a long way to escape grinding poverty. The impersonal violence of an economy that thrives on production is now nearly universal.

Davidson’s book would serve well as an introductory text for understanding the dynamics of work for justice and the need to get to the root causes of evil. The examples are clear -- the war on drugs will not stop drug trafficking; it only increases the casualties of this evil. A 12-foot fence will not stop illegal immigration; it only causes more death, as people go to extreme lengths to skirt it. Prostituting working poor people to attract industry is wrongheaded; in the end, the process destroys the entire culture. Ambos Nogales has something to teach all of us, and Davidson shares these lessons well.

Marist Fr. Michael Seifert works in San Felipe de Jesús Parish in Brownsville, Texas. His e-mail address is miguelseif@hotmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001